The Criminal Justice Challenge

Conservatives believe in limited government, but also in the rule of law. Contrary to some popular caricatures, conservatives recognize spheres in which government is necessary, and chief among them is public safety. Conservatives, however, also recognize that government is uniquely prone to abuse personal liberty and spend resources wastefully.  A challenge is therefore presented: how can we ensure public safety while still checking the power of government and keeping costs low?

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

In the 1960s, the United States experienced a notorious crime wave. Liberal theories on crime posited that criminals were inevitable products of oppressive societies and, given the correct resources, virtually all offenders were capable of curtailing their criminal behavior. These attitudes did little to limit criminality and, in fact, crime rates continued to swell into the 1970s.

Then the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Conservative politicians argued that criminals generally could not be rehabilitated, it was pointless to attempt most treatments, and the only realistic solution was to incapacitate a criminal through the use of incarceration. This was often caricatured as the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach.

WHAT’S GONE WRONG?

Under the incarceration-focused solution, societies were safer to the extent that dangerous people were incapacitated, but when offenders emerged from prison – with no job prospects, unresolved drug and mental health problems, and diminished connections to their families and communities – they were prone to return to crime.

While the growth of incarceration took many dangerous offenders off the streets, research suggested that it reached a point of diminishing returns, as recidivism rates increased and more than one million nonviolent offenders filled the nation’s prisons. In most states, prisons came to absorb more than 85 percent of the corrections budget, leaving limited resources for community supervision alternatives such as probation and parole, which cost less and could have better reduced recidivism among non-violent offenders.

Illustrating the failure of the entire corrections system, two-thirds of individuals now entering prison are offenders whose probation or parole was revoked, and half of these revocations are for technical violations such as not reporting to a probation officer, rather than for new crimes.  Parole and probation reporting are critical elements of community supervision, but it is worth asking whether re-incarceration is a sensible sanction for such violations.

WHAT’S THIS COSTING US?

As recidivism increases, taxpayers pay ever-larger sums to support a growing corrections system. In some states, criminal justice budgets quadrupled over a twenty year period. In part, this is because prison is terribly costly. At the low end, in a state such as Mississippi, incarceration can cost approximately $18,000 per year per prisoner. At the high end, in a state such as California, it can cost an astonishing $50,000 per year per prisoner.  According to the Pew Center on the States, state and federal spending on corrections has grown 400% over the past 20 years, from about $12 billion to about $60 billion.  Corrections spending is currently among the fastest growing line items in state budgets, and 1 in 8 full-time state government employees works in corrections.

How is it “conservative” to spend vast amounts of taxpayer money on a strategy without asking whether it is providing taxpayers with the best public safety return on their investment?

So now what?